Sunday, August 04, 2019

The Queen of the Jungle

Full-length version of the article published in the Hindu Sunday Magazine on 4 Aug 2019

Courtship. Credit: Stotra Chakrabarti
Stotra Chakrabarti’s heart leapt into his throat when a wild lion plonked companionably next to him. The dusty ground between his kneeling profile and the cat spanned a mere two metres, close enough to smell the beast’s rank breath. A moment earlier, it had been lying somewhere else while the researcher watched another lion tucking into a nilgai kill some distance away. “I became a statue,” Chakrabarti recalls. “I didn’t even bat an eyelid.” A disquieting fact was the predator dozing nonchalantly next to him was famished and waiting his turn at the carcass. Every time Chakrabarti moved a muscle in a slow motion effort to get away, the cat opened his eyes. “That was the longest half hour of my life.” This was one of the many instances when Asian lions took him by surprise.

The lions weren’t always this comfortable with him, especially not when he was a new entrant. They didn’t pay attention to his field assistants, since many of them had worked on the project since 1995 when Chakrabarti’s mentor set it up. By showing up every day, he got to know the lions and they became used to him. They probably didn’t recognise him by his spectacles and facial hair but as ‘the furtive man who wears the same brown pants, green shirt, and beige baseball cap’. With familiarity came ease.

Biologists need to pick one animal apart from the others. In the case of tigers and leopards, distinctive stripes and rosettes come in handy. But every buff-coloured lion looks the same. Biologists instead use whisker spots or moustache pattern from close-up photographs to identify them.

In an open grassland this technique would be simple, but the thickets of Gir, Gujarat, made it complicated. Where shrubbery came in the way of a clear shot, Chakrabarti had no choice but creep up to his subjects.

On a warm afternoon during the early days of his research, he stalked a lioness on foot as her pride fed on a sambar kill. She charged unexpectedly. Every self-preservation instinct told Chakrabarti to turn on his heels and run as the golden blur closed the distance between them. “If you show your back to a lion, your chances of surviving go from some to zero,” he says. Instead, the researcher shouted and thrashed his bamboo staff on the ground. The lionness stopped her attack. Her tail twitched as the dust she raised enveloped her. He realised later she had cubs and was understandably touchy.

Mom with cubs. Credit: Stotra Chakrabarti

Male lions can also be tough customers when they are consorting with females. A courting pair mates 50 to 60 times a day for an average of three days. They seldom drink and don’t eat. They may not live on love and fresh air, and they seem to get by on their surcharged hormones. High on testosterone, lions see even a moving bush as a rival, says Chakrabarti. He watched 134 mating events, and the males rushed at him every time.

The researcher survived without a mark but the ones under threat are cubs. Lions kill any cubs they suspect aren’t theirs to force the mothers to bear their offspring.

To avoid this tragedy, lionesses outwit the lions. A pride’s territory may overlap with three or four male coalitions, of two to four lions each. Lionesses mate with each one and confuse them all. Different males tolerate the same litter, thinking they are the fathers. “The females control the whole show,” says Chakrabarti. “It’s not the Lion King here, rather the Lion Queen that reigns.” African lionesses, in contrast, remain exclusive to one coalition.

This strategy of promiscuity works on known males but not with newcomers. Chakrabarti and his assistants perched on their vehicle, watching two lionesses with two three-month-old cubs feasting on a buffalo kill in a drying swamp. There wasn’t a tree or bush in sight. He spied unfamiliar males roaring as they approached. The quick-thinking older lioness, he had named Jodha, dashed towards the humans with the cubs on her heels. The suddenness of the situation caught the researcher off-guard. Sitting on the bonnet/hood of the vehicle, what could he do? She braked beside the 4WD and sprinted back to join the other lioness, alone. A bewildered Chakrabarti swivelled his head. Where had the cubs gone? They were secreted under the automobile.

Battle of the sexes. Credit: Stotra Chakrabarti

As the two lionesses chased the lions, the researcher wanted to follow. But how was he to move with the cubs ensconced between the wheels? Besides, his assistants refused to cooperate. “She has given us a responsibility,” one argued. “We can’t let her down.” The researcher had no choice but to wait until the lionesses returned two hours later. The mother hummed, a signal for the cubs to come out of cover. Reluctant at first to leave safety, they finally crawled out. As the family walked away, Jodha glanced back at the men as if to say ‘Thank you’.

If the lionesses’ devotion to their families melted his heart, he’s still coming to terms with the lions’ disdain. “A dhole or wolf gaze pierces you,” he says. “A tiger’s glance sends chills up your spine. But lions destroy your ego with one look. We were no more than persistent nagging flies that followed them everywhere.”

It’s impossible to tell if the hungry lion that decided to keep Chakrabarti company thought he was a fly.